Executing Justice: An interview with Padre Javier Giraldo

1988 Padre Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest, was instrumental in
founding a human rights organization, originally Catholic and now
ecumenical: the Comisión Intereclesial de Justicia y Paz (Interchurch
Commission for Justice and Peace), generally shortened to Jus ticia
y Paz. 

Tell us about the work you have done to bring to light human rights
abuses in Colombia. 

I worked for some years with CINEP, the Center for Investigation
and Popular Education, founded by Jesuits in the late 1960s. Its
purpose is to promote education and justice among Colombia’s
people. However, it became increasingly evident that Colombia needed
a small church-based organization that would confront issues of
human rights very directly. Most of the Catholic bishops were tied
to the government; they didn’t denounce any abuses except those
committed by guerrillas. 

progressive religious orders we began exploring how we might protect
the human rights of victims of the Colombian state. The bishops
were not interested in helping, but in early 1988 the superiors
of 25 orders (which we call congregations) founded the Comisión
de Justicia y Paz. Its goal was to provide humanitarian and legal
support, especially in areas of intense conflict—Santander,
Valle del Cauca, Magdalena Medio, Putumayo, and Urabá. We would
gather facts about human rights abuses in a databank and would publicize
situations of crisis. Some cases we would take to the courts. Our
staff developed close relationships with some impoverished communities
that were suffering in the midst of the armed conflict and that
gained courage to declare themselves peace communities. 

served as the general secretary of Justicia y Paz until the end
of 1998 and was often the spokesperson for victims in cases brought
before Colombia’s courts. In those 11 years I did not witness
a single act of justice and not one government or military official
who committed crimes was sanctioned. 

would you summarize your analysis of Colombia’s crisis? 

the late 1990s I published an article, “Lo que en Colombia
se llama justicia” (“What Is Called Justice in Colombia”),
published in our Justicia y Paz journal. It recounts 10 cases
that reveal the mechanisms of impunity in our country—how testimony
is manipulated, victims or their families are threatened and silenced,
false testimony is presented, essential documents are “misplaced.”
Then I posed a global question, “How can we turn to the victimizer
for justice?” We turn to the state to sanction human rights
violations, assign reparations, bring about justice—but the
state has committed the crimes and is the criminal. It’s a
terrible contradiction. 

conclusion was that the Colombian state tries to fulfill two functions.
On the one hand it’s a violent, discriminatory institution
that must favor a small wealthy minority. On the other hand, in
public discourse, it presents itself as a state based on law, one
that respects and implements justice, human rights norms, and democratic

do government functionaries manage this contradiction? They maintain
a duality. The parastate, a structure that is illegal and clandestine,
increasingly takes over the dirty work of repression. It doesn’t
appear to be part of the state. For many years now Colombia’s
government has been creating and maintaining these structures. The
legal, constitutional structure exists parallel to structures of
a parastate and paramilitary. 

does that leave the justice system? 

both in theory and in practice the justice system is separated from
the ethics of law. This is a fatal rupture. It is justified by legal
positivism, the philosophy currently taught in the majority of law
programs in our universities. Justice becomes mere technique. Procedural
truth is all that matters and this is a very limited and manipulable

here is based solely on testimony. Investigators and judges do not
look for other kinds of proof, such as weapons or corpses. By seeking
these kinds of evidence they would put themselves at personal risk.
Only the testimony of victims and their families is sought because
it is subject to manipulation: first by intimidation and threats,
second by bribing false witnesses who will contradict the statements
of victims and relatives. 

y Paz has served as a mediator, taking many victimized persons before
the courts and not one process was ever brought to resolution. The
Third Report on Colombia by the Interamerican Commission on Human
Rights, which drew on reports from our national police, the High
Council of Jurisprudence, and a number of NGOs, concluded that nearly
100 percent of those committing the greatest crimes against humanity
remain in impunity and, of the cases that have been argued before
the Commission, a full 100 percent remain unpunished. 

example, in 1992 the Trujillo massacre, a horrendous crime involving
more than 60 victims, was presented to the Commission. As Justicia
y Paz presented the evidence, the government ran out of explanations.
An amicable means of resolving the situation was proposed and the
government accepted it—the creation of an ad hoc commission
bringing together government and NGO representatives to decide sanctions.
Justicia y Paz agreed as well, on the condition that the commission
be required to present its conclusions within three months. 

mixed commission, which included members of seven government agencies
and five NGOs, worked well and was able to present its findings
in the three months. It ordered that justice be served. But since
that time nothing has been done. Not one of the guilty has been
sanctioned, even though many more victims have come to light in
subsequent years. 

is at the root of Colombia’s long  civil war? 

has to do with injustice. The guerrillas have chosen armed struggle
in their quest to help the poor. They have committed many serious
errors, even brutal acts, but their goal is justice. It’s very
different with the state, which represents the rich. Not only are
its abuses more egregious, but their motivation is completely contrary
to the gospel. I have never been a supporter of the guerrilla forces,
but I do not have the same attitude toward them as toward the state
and the paramilitaries.

guerrillas killed some leaders of San José de Apartadó,
which had taken a stand as a peace community, after the townspeople
refused to sell them food. We attempted to talk with the FARC commanders
to explain that the peace communities are seeking justice and should
be respected. The discussions were heated, but gradually they came
to understand and respect something of the peace community strategy. 

talk a bit about your faith. 

basic question is: Which side are we on? Which side does the gospel
take? It is on the side of the poor. You have to choose. 

was a novice when Camilo Torres died as a guerrilla fighter. Years
later, I read some of his discourses and they affected me profoundly.
Camilo was a priest, a chaplain of the National University, and
founder of that university’s department of sociology. 

proposed a reversal of the classic Christian pastoral progression,
which was to begin with the sacraments—baptism, Eucharist—then
to move to catechesis, or instruction in doctrine, and finish with
an optional advanced stage of social action and charity. This, he
said, should be the other way round. A person’s first contact
with the gospel should be through commitment to the poor. The second
stage would involve reflection on these experiences in light of
the teachings of Christ. Only in the third stage would the convert
enter into the sacraments, the celebration of our faith. 

worked not only in the university, but also with campesinos to seek
agrarian reform. He encountered continual threats and repression.
He joined the guerrilla forces in October 1965 because military
officers were threatening to kill him and he saw no other way out.
His friends told him he had three choices: go to prison, go into
exile, or join the guerrillas. He died in combat in February 1966
at the age of 37. 

thinking sounds like an early version of liberation theology. 

theology of liberation was articulated further by theologians who
gathered in Medellín in 1968. Like Camilo’s thought, liberation
theology calls for a dialogue between social commitment and the
gospel. When doing my graduate work, I wrote my thesis on the theology
of liberation. Then, when I was studying further in France in the
late 1970s, I began to work with human rights. That was when Julio
César Turbay was president of Colombia and torture was rampant.
In France I was part of a committee of Colombian solidarity. On
my return in 1982 I helped to organize human rights groups—the
International League for the Rights and Liberation of the Peoples,
the Association of Families of the Disappeared (ASFADES), Justicia
y Paz, other groups.

I struggled with the sense of living in contradiction, given the
church’s traditional concept of our faith and the negative
history of Christianity—the Inquisition, the Crusades, social
teachings opposing workers’ movements, the conquest of the

exploration has led to a firm conviction that the faith of the centuries
does not correspond well to the faith of the earliest Christians.
Christianity was adulterated by the Constantinian co-opting and
the barbarian invasions. It was massified and much of the essence
was sacrificed—the values of the gospel. Christianity became
information, doctrine, and norms of conduct. It drifted away from
the life of Jesus. 

Christianity, I believe, is seen now in minority groups committed
to justice and to following Jesus in opposition to the consumer
capitalist culture. We gain access to the faith not through doctrine,
information, or intellectual argument, but through ethical options,
countercultural values lived out in everyday life. 

did your departure from Colombia come about and why did you come

had signed a number of documents denouncing the state’s abuses.
Six generals were very upset with me; we exchanged letters. Some
paramilitaries sent me terrible messages. It accumulated over a
period of years. One day soldiers broke into the Justicia y Paz
office to “inspect” it and false accusations were launched
against us. They brought information technology experts to open
the computer that held the Proyecto Nunca Más databank. After
that I began to receive death threats. 

June 1998, five separate sources warned that there was a plan to
assassinate me during a certain week. My Jesuit superior had been
pressuring me to go into exile and I had not wanted to, but now
he ordered me to leave the country. I went to San Francisco and
later to The Hague. In both places I did a lot of theological reading. 

superiors were determined that I not return to Colombia. General
Fernando Tapias, commander of Colombia’s armed forces, spoke
with my superior and said I should stay away, since he “could
not control” his subordinate generals who wanted to see me
dead. But I had become depressed in exile. Other projects were offered
to me, in West Timor and in Africa, but they were never concrete
and I did not feel called to them so I returned in mid-2000. 

Tapias sought me out at the end of 2000. He said many military officers
under his command hated me and he could not control or take responsibility
for them. He advised me to leave the country. But I told him that
I would not go. Since that moment I have been more confident. I
have gradually returned to more public involvement, working with
CINEP and the databank. I haven’t received one death threat
since my return. 

can Northern people of faith committed to justice support and learn
from their counterparts in Latin America? 

are several kinds of involvement that can be helpful. First, accompaniment
of human rights workers and peace communities. What Witness for
Peace and others did in Central America in the 1980s showed the
efficacy of North American visits to subvert misinformation. There’s
nothing like direct testimony. North Americans can come to Colombia,
observe the situation, and return to give testimony of what is really
happening. Organizations like Peace Brigades International and Fellowship
of Reconciliation are doing very important work here. 

adoption of sister communities. Having their plight known overseas
can form a protective barrier for communities that are trying to
resist cooperation with armed groups. 

response to information. Justicia y Paz sends out email calls for
action in the face of crises. The Internet allows a very rapid reaction;
people overseas who read these reports can make timely calls to
the appropriate authorities. 

invitations to Colombian activists and representatives of the peace
communities for speaking tours in the United States and Canada are
very helpful for spreading the word and allowing North Americans
access to political analysis from the inside.

Ruth Goring was
a Justicia y Paz volunteer. Having grown up in Colombia as the daughter
of missionaries, she now works as an editor and writer in the Chicago
area. This interview was originally published in the July/August 2003
issue of
PRISM Magazine, published by Evangelicals
for Social Action.